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Top tips for writing the first chapter of your novel

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Hellie Ogden

Hellie Ogden, literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit, and the mentor in Stylist’s fiction competition, shares her top tips for crafting a standout first chapter.

We get a huge amount of novel submissions sent to us every single day at Janklow & Nesbit and we are highly selective about what we take on. But what would make us sit up, take note and want to read more?

  1. A corker of a first line. Think carefully about what will draw us in and what feels original and fresh.
  2. A unique voice. Experiment, try a few things and then settle on a tone of voice that feels exciting to you, and unique to us.
  3. Don’t feel you need to tell the reader everything all at once. You can introduce information as you go. It is, however, important to give a good sense of place – time, country/culture, contemporary/historical/magical – so that the reader can understand the context of your story.
  4. This is not the time to worry about perfection. Improvements will come with editing, the most important thing is to get it down. Having said that try not to make silly typos and do spend time giving everything a good proofread.
  5. Focus on one main character. You can introduce the rest of the cast, but this is the one the reader really needs to bond with straight away.
  6. Introduce at least a hint of the main conflict. This will then drive the novel.
  7. Know where this is going and who your audience is. You might not have the entire thing plotted out in your head but you should be clear on a rough plan for the book that will then come out in the opening chapter. You should also have a good sense of who is reading it and adapt your tone accordingly. Some people, for example, think they are writing for kids when the novel should be for adults.
  8. Avoid clichés. With perhaps the biggest culprit being starting the novel with your character waking up from a dream.
  9. Avoid false starts. There’s often a few false starts before a novel really gets going: a prologue, or a foreword, or both; a flashback from one character’s point of view, then another’s; maybe a bit of atmospheric exposition, just to set the scene. It can come across as a bit indecisive, or lacking in confidence. The first chapter needs to be exactly that: the beginning, where the story kicks off; not just a scene-setting exercise.
  10. No bodily functions on the first page. Enough said!

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